The “suggest” feature on Google often causes controversy, because Google suggests what Google users often search for, and Google users — like most inhabitants of the planet Earth — are notoriously politically incorrect. The most frequently searched topics can be quite offensive, and when offense is being taken, who do you think is standing at the head of the queue, ready to claim their share?
You guessed right! So it’s no surprise to find an article in Arab News with the headline “Google slammed for suggesting ‘smelly Arabs’”:
The ‘Google Suggest’ feature, a labor saving device designed to predict queries will automatically suggest completing your query with ‘why do Arabs stink?’ or ‘why do Arabs have big noses?’
This sounded like a real hoot, so I opened Google and tried it out. Here’s a screen cap of the result (which was still allowed by Google as of this morning):
After I stopped laughing and wiped the tears from my eyes, I continued reading the article:
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It is not hard to understand why Arab interest groups such as the London-based Arab Media Watch (AMW) have started to remonstrate against the suggestions.
“What’s worrying is that these (suggestions) are based on the overall popularity of searches, so if you may not have been looking for that, many other people have,” Guy Gabriel, advisor to AMW told The Media Line. “We’re in a day and age where the Internet is a tool by which we break down barriers and learn more about different communities across the world so it’s alarming to notice on Google that this isn’t the case as it stands.”
This assertion doesn’t make sense. If we “learn more about different communities across the world”, we discover that — statistically speaking — Arabs tend to do some things more than other groups do, and those things include driving taxis, wearing turbans, owning gas stations, and wearing black. Yes, they really do write from right to left. And, not to put too fine a point on it, they also tend to throw rocks, fight with Jews, and lose wars.
Smelling bad is a matter of personal opinion, and everyone can determine that one for himself. As for “big noses”: if you took a pair of calipers to the schnozzes of a thousand Arabs and compared the result with a thousand toffee-nosed Brits or Yanks, what do you think you would find?
So what’s the big deal?
Well… Anything that offends Arabs is a big deal, so Google will probably have to “fix” this feature eventually. The AMW aims to make sure of it:
The organization advocating fair and objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media says Google is “failing in its aim to avoid offending a large audience of users,” and said the feature not only perpetuates stereotypes but also highlights a worrying trend among Google users.
“I’m not suggesting that Google are aware of this and they are refusing to do anything about it,” Gabriel said. “Now that it has been flagged, they are in a position to do something about it.”
In other words: Google, you have been warned.
AMW claimed that while searches regarding other ethnic groups produced a similar range of pejorative or stereotypical suggestions, queries about Arabs yielded more offensive results than other groups, and a search using Jews produced noticeably far less.
Yes, I can well imagine that this is the case. Familiarity breeds contempt, and over the last decade or so the English-speaking world has become very familiar with Arabs, perhaps much more familiar than it would like.
However, if the Arabs have ended up the losers in an ethnic popularity contest, the only possible explanation is our inherent racism and Islamophobia. What Arabs themselves say and do has no bearing on the matter — our “prejudice” is the only possible explanation.
What if those insulting suggestions concerned — to pick another ethnic group at random — the Danes? How would those proud Vikings react if such aspersions were cast upon them?
All the Danes I know would laugh themselves silly.
So I tried “Why do Danes” in the Google search box, and… Nothing! Google users don’t even care enough about Danes to ask insulting questions, and that’s the most insulting thing of all!
So I had to make up my own suggestion list for “Why do Danes”:
- wear helmets with horns sticking out
- drink beer
- eat smelly fish
- have blond hair
- eat licorice
- light candles
- listen to Lady Gaga
- etc., etc.
Are we offended yet?
I tried a lot of other ethnic groups, religions, and nationalities, and found Google to be a treasure trove of user preoccupations concerning Eskimos, Hindus, the Irish, Africans, Italians, Greeks, Germans, Chinese, Japanese, Russians, Canadians, Australians, Britons, and Americans.
But my favorite “Why do” list was for the Turks. It contained only two items: “deny the genocide” and “smell bad”. Now, that’s succinct.
Google, despite its lofty PC intentions, has inadvertently created a massive database of ethnic stereotypes. If you want to find out all the insulting things that people think about, say, the French, just google “Why do French” and wait for the suggestions to pop up. Hint: the olfactory sense is involved here, too.
As a matter of fact, most people outside the Anglosphere seem to “smell bad”. Considering that this is an Anglophone list, I suppose that’s not surprising. A French person who googles a question about “les Anglais” might well turn up something uncomplimentary about all those malodorous goddams across the Sleeve.
But back to the Arabs. For some reason the Google suggestions left out the most relevant question of all:
Why do Arabs have such thin skins?